Sunday, November 02, 2008
The Guardian Saturday November 1 2008
The first lady
Unsurprisingly, Oliver Stone's new movie depicts Dubya as a foul-mouthed frat boy. But, says Lesley O'Toole, wait until you see Thandie Newton as Condi Rice
Condoleezza Rice always seemed the outsider in George W Bush's administration. The first black woman to serve as secretary of state, she was a smart addition to Bush's circle; even many neocons considered her a safeguard against the boys' club that Bush gathered around him. Instead, she simply stood by as the White House team prepared for war, her dazzling smile seeming ever more odd and, after Hurricane Katrina, downright inappropriate.
Just as odd is Oliver Stone's choice to play Rice in his biopic of Bush, called simply W. But at 35, some 18 years younger than her character, Thandie Newton is also the perfect actress, a natural beauty who dissolves into the part, playing Rice as a smirking bundle of hair and makeup whose stance on Bush's war never quite emerges through the soundbites. In Stone's own words he cast her because, "Thandie's one of the top 10 actresses in the world." Newton's not so sure, however. "I haven't told him this," she says, breaking from filming on set in Shreveport, Louisiana, "but when he said, 'What do you think Condo-leezza?', I was thinking, 'Are you crazy?!'"
W might well be Newton's most important moment in the spotlight since her Bafta-winning turn in Crash, a role that won her a Best Supporting Actress Bafta, vindicating her decision to turn her back on the Hollywood mainstream and concentrate on raising a family with her writer-director husband Ol Parker. As a result, she said yes to a string of hit Britflicks (Run, Fat Boy, Run; RocknRolla) that arguably did her more good than the Charlie's Angels movie she turned down. Here, she tells the Guide about life in Oliver's army …
How hard was it to turn yourself into Condoleezza Rice?
It was a huge amount of terrifying work. There was always more to learn, new books coming out. But I love research. It was like going back to Cambridge again, getting out old dusty books at Haddon Library. It was like doing a PhD. I could do a Mastermind on her now. But I was mostly preoccupied with Oliver Stone's Condoleezza Rice. She serves this story and Josh Brolin's Bush. Our dynamic was a real little slice of uniqueness.
You couldn't use prosthetics due to local humidity but the physical transformation is uncanny ...
Hearing that was scary because we have different-shaped face muscles and jaw lines so makeup shading was key. I worked with makeup artist Kay Montano to create a look inspired by [conceptual American photographer] Cindy Sherman. This whole thing's like a dream, a whacked-out Wizard Of Oz, Cindy Sherman opera. And Condoleezza reminded me of Maggie Thatcher. They both went to a finishing school and there's a similarity in how much they smile, sometimes in the most inappropriate places.
Was this your first encounter with Oliver Stone?
We met a few years ago about something else. I really pissed him off because I hadn't seen his current movie at that time. This time I met him at his house in LA. On the drive there I thought, "Is this really where he lives? Where he exists?" That anomaly, for me anyway, was so refreshing. Having a proper angry intellectual in Hollywood just seems not to make any sense. What's there to be angry about? You have to look for any disease or disturbance.
Going to Oliver's place was like finding a museum.
You've mentioned that "it's so good to act again". What do you mean by that ?
I really don't know what I do normally. And that's not out of disrespect to the people I've worked with but it can be horribly easy to have this be a hobby. Well, not even a hobby because it pays you money. You can give it your best but it can be difficult to think, "Am I going to do this for the rest of my life?" Working on W was brief but every now and again there's a recharge of the battery. This was one of them but honestly RocknRolla was too. It's when things take you by surprise; you think you can do something without thinking and suddenly realise you've got to actually use your attention and be present.
What was it like working with Guy Ritchie on RocknRolla?
Guy is special. I was so excited to work with him and knew this kind of banter and characters were his preferred vehicle. I did think, "Oh God, this is unknown territory for me" but I like jumping without opening my eyes. Not to jeopardise my equilibrium but to push myself out of my comfort zone. And if the director believes you can do it then you can, even if you don't know it. It's a question of respect.
Had you met Madonna before?
Just at a party years ago, in a long line at the court of Madonna. But I had a little time meeting her after the movie was finished. I was at jujitsu practice with [my daughter] Ripley. Rocco goes to the same jujitsu school which Guy had told me about. Madonna came and was just a mum sitting there, but also someone I really like and admire. It was a lovely warm feeling. She's this exquisitely beautiful, delicate woman.
You starred in last year's Norbit with Eddie Murphy, a hit film perceived by some as racist. Did that worry you?
The first draft, written by Eddie and his brother [Charles], was so out-there offensive it became satire. But I think it was mainstreamed so much it became hateful rather than satirical. You do things with your best intentions that don't always work out. End of story.
How important do you think your ethnicity has been to your career?
Jason Isaacs [Harry Potter adversary Lucius Malfoy] said to me once, "I wish I was in an ethnic minority when I look at your career, Thandie." And it's true. God, lucky me. There are times when I think about my mum and the rural upbringing she had in Zimbabwe. You can't get more rural. And I've been to Cambridge University, I've got a successful career. How fantastic. I think accountants are most responsible for who gets cast and if you happen to be black - well, look at Will Smith. He's the biggest star in the world and if we get caught up in the fact that it's because he's black, we're missing the point. But there are times when I wonder why I don't get more magazine covers.
Have you ever discussed this with your friend Oprah?
She's a good friend of mine, the fairy godmother. At times I need a little help with my direction in life and she is one of those inspiring people. I don't overuse that channel because she's busy, but her love for, and knowledge of, me are a huge help. We shoot each other emails now and again and if I don't get one back that's cool.
Do you regret any of the films you've made?
Absolutely none. I make a film, I move on. I accept responsibility; I have to because I was a part of it. Some people don't like it, some people do; there it goes. That's not just a blanket "everything I've done is fine". But often, more challenging things that come from having made mistakes are what make you grow artistically and personally. I just accept all of them